After days of experimentation, Edison and his team had a device that could play back well-formed sounds. The Menlo Park facility was besieged by the media and on-lookers, all eager to get a glimpse of the new invention. Despite the initial excitement, few people saw a practical use for the phonograph, and it did not become a household staple for many years. Edison himself did not recognize the market potential of the device until competitors showed him, and he sold his rights to the Edison Speaking Phonograph Company in January 1878.


The Menlo Park laboratory is perhaps Edison's most unheralded invention. There had never been anything like it before: a place where a small group of men completely devoted themselves to technological research in an environment that resembled a cooperative society more than a business. Although Edison demanded long hours and loyalty from his employees, he rewarded them with a workplace that shunned hierarchy and encouraged free spirits (the staff took breaks to eat and smoke together, and after long sessions they would all gather around an organ and sing). In its approach to invention, the Menlo Park laboratory resembled contemporary industrial research laboratories, and in its approach to team building, it resembled contemporary Internet companies.

The patent battles over the telephone offer an excellent view into the world of inventors in the late nineteenth century. As the battles between Gray and Bell show, it was not always about who invented the device first or even who invented the better device. It was about who filed a patent first and who better demonstrated a practical use for the device. The patent was the crucial thing, as Edison learned when he attempted to circumvent infringement laws through new inventions.

Other than the patent, the marketplace shaped the inventor's decisions. If a device was not immediately marketable, many inventors lost interest until someone else picked up their design. Both Edison and Bell created products with a close eye on how much money they might be able to make from them. They were encouraged to hold these views by the corporations and businesses that sponsored them. At times this viewpoint blinded them to the crucial concept of longevity, but it ensured that they would use their skills to develop things that were practical.

The phonograph is a good example of how the demands of the marketplace blinded Edison to long-terms prospects for the device. Like the telephone, the public initially reacted with skepticism. It seemed to them like a novelty, a toy, and Edison did not realize that it would become a consumer staple in the early twentieth century. He had hoped that it would be used for educational purposes(for the blind, for example) or to perform office dictation. When it did not bring immediate results, he neglected the invention for more than five years.

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